The healing power of strength training

Experts say that weight lifting can be a healthy way for many trauma survivors to feel powerful and capable again. (Photo: Envato Elements)
When Cheng Xu was serving in the Canadian Armed Forces as a paratrooper and infantry officer, he experienced a series of traumatic events in rapid succession — his best friend and fellow officer took his own life, a soldier under his command was injured during a live fire exercise and a close friend’s father was kidnapped.اضافة اعلان

He felt like the world was collapsing around him everywhere except at the gym, where he trained in competitive Olympic weightlifting.

“The only thing I had that anchored me was weightlifting, because that was the only place where I felt safe,” said Xu, 32, now a doctoral student in Toronto. Surrounded by the clinking and clanking of barbells, he slowly discovered what he described as “the healing properties of strength training.”

Psychologists have long established that exercise is beneficial for mental health, and over the past decade, research has also shown that it can be a valuable tool for addressing post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, despite weightlifting’s associations with violent bursts of brawn, growing numbers of people who’ve experienced trauma are finding that pumping iron is a balm. For many, the sport’s healing powers come down to the fact that, where trauma has left them feeling helpless, powerless, and weak, lifting helps them feel strong — not only physically, but also psychologically.

“Lifting gave me a sense of agency,” Xu said. “It gave me a sense of control.” And in time, he said, these feelings led to his recovery.

Learning to literally push back
People who have experienced trauma have long gravitated toward the weight room, drawn, in part, to the promise of increased physical strength. But these lifters have historically received little guidance on how to train in a way that supports their mental health and recovery. Lifters have also had to navigate a fitness culture that often glorifies a “no pain, no gain” approach, with a focus on performance and superficial appearances over long term well-being.

“There is a lot of toxic masculinity in strength training,” said James Whitworth, an exercise physiologist and health science specialist at the National Center for PTSD and assistant professor at Boston University’s medical school, as well as a disabled combat veteran.

But as more people of all genders and abilities have discovered the benefits of strength training, the weightlifting community is becoming more inclusive and expansive. Mental health groups also have begun to formalize lifting as a therapeutic tool and educate trainers in how to coach clients living with physical and psychological trauma. At the same time, the scientific community is beginning to study why, exactly, some people with trauma find lifting heavy things helps them recover.

“There’s something in weightlifting and working with resistance” that builds resilience, said Chelsea Haverly, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of Hope Ignited, a Maryland-based organization dedicated to educating organizations and clinicians about trauma. “Not only in the brain, but also in the body.”

Last year, Haverly and Emily Young, a licensed clinical social worker and certified personal trainer, created a trauma-informed weightlifting certification program for trainers, in an effort to bring its mental health benefits to more clients. With lifting, Haverly said, “it’s not just, ‘I can do hard things.’ It’s ‘my body can do hard things.’ It’s ‘I have not felt strong, and now I feel like a beast.’ ”

Finding the right form of exercise
As more people with trauma affirm the benefits of lifting, Whitworth and other psychologists are working to better understand the psychological and neurological mechanisms behind its potential as a therapeutic tool.

“Improving someone’s physical strength in a way that they can see and feel may be particularly potent for individuals with PTSD,” said Whitworth, by “helping to reframe their worldview, as well as their views of themselves.”

While nearly every kind of exercise is beneficial for people with psychological trauma, Whitworth said, they reap the most psychological benefits when they engage in moderate-to-high-intensity training, which includes weightlifting. High-intensity resistance training, specifically, has been shown to help improve sleep quality and anxiety, which can improve overall health and well-being.

And yet, people who have experienced trauma often avoid exercise entirely because of the physical stress response it can generate — a rapid pulse, heavy breathing, raised body temperature — which may remind them of their trauma. For this reason, helping patients find the type of exercise that feels right for them is essential.

Yoga is often recommended to people with trauma because of its focus on breathing and mindfulness, but it isn’t for everyone. “There’s a whole cohort of people that are terrified of it or not drawn to it for any number of reasons,” said Mariah Rooney, a licensed clinical social worker, yoga teacher, and weightlifter based in Denver. Some clients find that yoga’s relative quiet and stillness can trigger anxiety, she said.

The power of exertion in increments
In her 2021 book “Lifting Heavy Things: Healing Trauma One Rep at a Time,” New York City-based certified personal trainer and trauma survivor Laura Khoudari explained that one reason she and others connect with lifting is because it offers regular pauses in intensity — which allow them to check in with themselves and assess how they’re feeling, which in turn helps prevent becoming overwhelmed.

“The breaks give your nervous system a chance to settle down,” said Khoudari, who has also completed coursework in body-oriented trauma therapy and become a leading advocate of lifting as a form of healing. “When we’re dealing with trauma, our nervous system generally has less capacity for stress, and also less resilience,” she continued. “And so you can use strength training to push on the edge of how much stress you can take.” Over time, this can expand our window of tolerance.

For this reason, Whitworth and others said weightlifting might be a helpful tool for people undergoing exposure therapy, during which therapists encourage patients to focus on their traumatic memories for short, controlled increments — not unlike the cyclic nature of strength training. Over time, this exposure can defuse the memories as well as the related physical stress.

“The idea is that they may be really anxious at first,” Whitworth said. But “over time, patients start to process the fact that those memories and feelings are not dangerous.”

Pairing this therapy with high-intensity exercise such as weightlifting, he said, might be “particularly beneficial.”

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